Everyone wants to move better, feel better, and look better. We meet these goals by improving our quality of sleep, optimizing our fitness routines, and being mindful of the foods we eat. However, as we get older we have to pay more attention to these habits to avoid heart problems, blood circulation issues, and more. The foods we eat are essential to living a healthy life. An important nutrient most people easily overlook is nitrates. Yes, these appear in processed meats and other less than ideal food choices, but naturally occurring nitrates can do wonderful things for your health. Specifically, nitrates are bountiful in leafy greens. We will look at what the nitrates in leafy greens can do for you and what nitrates have to do with nitric oxide: another molecule essential for your health.


What is nitric oxide?

Nitric oxide (NO) is a molecule responsible for aiding in various processes within the body such as blood circulation, blood pressure management, digestion, cognitive function, etc. When nitric oxide is produced, a process called vasodilation occurs. During vasodilation, NO relaxes and dilates the blood vessels. This allows for improved blood flow and lower blood pressure. For older individuals or those suffering from heart-related health problems, NO was a miracle molecule. Over time, NO has become a heavily researched molecule in the medical and fitness fields.


How is nitric oxide produced?

NO is a gas that disseminates very fast once produced. Because of this, NO can rapidly penetrate cell membranes and promote optimal cellular function. Our bodies produce NO in 3 areas:


  • cells located in the endothelium of our blood vessels
  • oral bacteria in our mouths
  • bacteria on our skin when exposed to sunlight

These are not the same thing as the pathways our body uses to produce NO, we are just talking about the locations where NO production occurs. To get a better understanding of how important NO is for us, let’s briefly touch on some of the benefits.


Improves exercise performance

NO is linked to improved exercise performance in endurance athletes such as runners and cyclists. Improved exercise tolerance is a contributing factor in athletes supplementing with NO boosters or other NO precursor supplements to enhance their performance and recovery.


Reduces muscle soreness

NO improves not just your exercise endurance, but also your recovery time. According to studies conducted, NO reduces muscle soreness experienced post-workout. Research shows NO may reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) following intense training.


Improves sexual health

Since NO improves blood circulation and improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients, NO also potentially improves erectile dysfunction symptoms in men. There is more research needed here, but there is some correlation between NO’s vasodilation properties and improving the muscle relaxation needed for an erection to occur.


Lowers blood pressure

NO can help lower blood pressure thanks to vasodilation. Since blood vessels widen to allow more blood flow, this process also lowers blood pressure. Hypertension is difficult for many to track and can lead to various other heart problems. Hypertension can even lead to a heart attack or stroke if left unchecked. Increasing nitric oxide is an easy way to alleviate these issues.

This is far from exhaustive as far as NO benefits go. However, these are some of the commonly discussed benefits of NO. So how do we go about getting more of this in our systems to experience these benefits?


How do we improve nitric oxide levels?

There are many things we can do to boost our nitric oxide levels. We can exercise more, sleep better, spend more time in the sun, and more. However, for today we will focus on food to improve our NO levels. When it comes to eating foods to boost our NO levels, we look at three main ingredients in these foods: L-arginine, L-citrulline, and nitrates. L-arginine and L-citrulline are both amino acids that are found in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Nitrates are natural chemicals found in soil and various foods. Nitrates are also used in processed foods as a preservative. While all three are found in healthy foods to boost NO levels, nitrates are the focus here.


Where are nitrates found?

Nitrates are found in various foods such as leafy greens, roots, and root plants. Rather than list every food you can find naturally occurring nitrates, I will list off several leafy greens containing high amounts of nitrates the body uses to produce nitric oxide.


Leafy greens high in nitrates

A plethora of vegetables contains high levels of nitrates your body can convert into nitric oxide. However, with a few exceptions, leafy greens contain the highest concentrations of nitrates. This list is not in any specific order, but rather just contains the leafy greens with the highest concentrations of nitrates. You can choose the best ones for you to add to your diet if your goal is to increase your NO levels.


1. Arugula

This leafy green many consider packing the most punch in terms of nitrate concentrations. Arugula is a popular leafy green in Italian foods. You can eat arugula raw or cooked in various recipes. Arugula is a member of the cabbage and mustard green family, so it has a peppery taste to it. According to studies, arugula has a nitrate concentration of about 480mg per 100g.


2. Celery

This leafy green is a common low-calorie snack for many looking to lose weight. Celery is part of the same family as carrots and parsley. Most people eat the stalk of the celery, known for packing a hydrating crunch. Apart from its fiber content, celery has a high concentration of nitrates, coming in at about 250mg per 100g.


3. Cress

This leafy green comes packed with a peppery flavor since it is part of the cabbage family. Cress is low in calories and contains essential nutrients like vitamins A and C. While cress is associated with benefits such as immune system support, what we care about here is the nitrate concentration. Cress contains about 250mg per 100g, making it an excellent choice to boost nitric oxide levels.


4. Lettuce

Lettuce is one of the most widely consumed leafy greens in the world. This vegetable is low in calories and a good source of iron. Furthermore, lettuce is a good source of fiber and vitamin C. Lettuce also contains a high concentration of nitrate, coming in at around 200mg per 100g. Add this salad staple to your diet if you’ve been slacking on your leafy greens and let those nitric oxide levels soar.


5. Spinach

For anyone looking to eat healthier, adding spinach to their diet is a typical go-to move. Spinach is a staple leafy green for most because of its nutrient profile. Spinach is a great source of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, folate, and potassium. To make it even more appealing for us, spinach contains over 250mg per 100g of nitrate. Adding this leafy green to your salads is a must to boost those NO levels.


6. Beet Greens

When it comes to a leafy green, chances are beet greens were not on your list. Many people just jump to the beetroot for nitric oxide boosting nitrates, and this is completely acceptable. However, the greens on top offer us plenty of health benefits as well. Beet greens contain high levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Furthermore, beet greens contain around 110mg per 100g of nitrate. Although this may not be as high as beetroots or other leafy greens, it is still plenty for boosting NO levels. So the next time you go to get beets from your grocery store or local farmer’s market, be sure not to discard the beet greens.


7. Chinese Cabbage

Chinese cabbage can be consumed raw, stewed, or mixed into a slaw. This cabbage is considered to be less pungent than other cabbages and has a sweeter taste. Chinese cabbage is low in calories and is a good source of vitamins, iron, calcium, and antioxidants. Chinese cabbage also contains around 161mg per 100g of nitrate. This makes it great for boosting NO levels in our bodies. So if you use Chinese cabbage as a lettuce wrap, do so with confidence knowing you’re making a good choice.


8. Bok Choy

Bok choy is technically a type of Chinese cabbage but has a different texture than other cabbages. This type of leafy green has a smaller bulbous bottom and has a mustard green-like cluster formation on its top. Bok choy is a good source of vitamin C and vitamin K. Furthermore, bok choy contains between 103-309mg per 100g of nitrates. If you are unfamiliar with bok choy, it’s worth looking into for boosting NO levels.


9. Swiss Chard

This leafy green has a bitter flavor when eaten raw, but becomes milder when cooked. Swiss chard is a great source of vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium, and other antioxidants. Although you will reap more benefits from this plant by consuming it raw, it still contains roughly between 147-270mg per 100g of nitrates. This makes Swiss chard a solid choice for boosting nitric oxide levels.


10. Mustard Greens

Greens are a vegetable most southern folks will be accustomed to. People tend to enjoy these simmered, steamed, or sautéed. However, mustard greens can be eaten raw as well. Mustard greens have a slightly peppery and bitter taste but do become milder when cooked. These greens are a great source of vitamin B1 and B3. Furthermore, this leafy green contains up to 116mg per 100g of nitrates, making it good for boosting NO levels.


Eat those leafy greens for a nitric oxide boost

Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. There are of course plenty of other leafy greens that contain naturally occurring nitrates your body can use to produce nitric oxide. All you need to know is that these green listed carry the most bang for your buck and have many other health benefits associated with them as well. Eat your greens and reap the benefits!